Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jamie Ripka was a captain, when in fact she was a deckhand.
“I don’t really know that many women who do it,” Lauren Brady admits, looking out across the calm waters of Yaquina Bay on a rare sunny day in September. She has been commercial fishing since April, working on crabbing, shrimping, black cod fishing, and most recently tuna fishing boats. Brady agreed to meet with me to help readers gain a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of the few women who choose this career.
Google “women in commercial fishing in Oregon” and the results that appear validate Brady’s anecdotal understanding. The links listed first seem almost irrelevant to those key words: a website to get a commercial fishing license with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, an OregonLive article about a male fishing captain assaulting his girlfriend at sea, and some articles from Oregon State University about the important role fishermens’ land-locked wives play in the industry.
However, nowhere, it seems, can one easily find the number of women directly involved in fishing in this state. While the Oregon Department of Employment estimates the total number of commercial fishers for 2017 at 1,330 across the state and 350 specifically for Lincoln County, these totals do not reveal the demographics of the industry. Considering that fishing is the backbone of many Oregon coastal communities, contributing more than $500 million to personal income annually, this lack of formal information is perhaps a bit surprising.
Talking to just one female in the business paints an incomplete picture, but even then, a better picture than the piecemeal statistics that exist of the successes and challenges women face on and off the water.
Brady came to Newport from Chicago eight years ago. While studying aquarium science and serving at bayfront restaurants, her interest in fishing was quickly piqued.
“I would just watch the boats come in and out of the bay, and I was so sick of serving, I would see the boats and think I want to do that, to be outside and work with animals.”
However, it took her months after she decided to actively pursue the career to be offered a position. While she had many male friends in town involved in various fisheries, none were able or willing to connect her to a boat. Eventually Brady began going to spots popular with the fishing crowd on her own, with often punitive results. Fishermen would tell her that she couldn’t work on their boat because she “didn’t have a penis,” Brady recalls. “Or they would tell me I was too pretty to be a fisherman, or they’d tell me straight up that I couldn’t do it, that it was too hard and I couldn’t handle it.” While these comments were unrelenting, she continued to pursue the job.
Eventually Brady was given the chance at a trial day on a crabbing boat whose captain had a bad reputation in town. “No one else would give me a job and I had to start somewhere,” she said. That first trip involved a whole lot of vomit, but also a reckoning of how capable she is at such a physically and mentally demanding undertaking. While she was aware beforehand that she may not be as physically strong as her male counterparts, she quickly learned how to use her body strategically to accomplish required tasks, as well as how to maintain a mindset that would push her through the uncomfortable conditions.
She continued working on this boat for about four months, then left when the captain’s shady repute caught up to her own experience. New to the industry and without the guidance of a fishing family in the area or female peers, Brady was initially unaware of how important it was to sign a contract before taking a position as a deckhand, and had trusted her captain’s word that she would get paid in a timely manner. He took advantage of this, and she is still owed approximately $4,000 for her labor, with plans to take the case to a small claims court once the current fishing season ends.
Still, even with these losses, she does not regret her decision to start fishing, explaining that “once you get out there and people see you out on the water working every day, then people are more willing to give you a chance at a better job from there.”
After leaving the crabbing boat, Brady did get a better position. She worked as a deckhand on the shrimping boat Dusk, where she met another female deckhand, Jamie Ripka. While she discovered that she wasn’t particularly fond of shrimping and wanted to find something else, Brady appreciated having Ripka as a role model in the field.
“She’s super stubborn, she’s a really hard worker, a total badass,” Brady adulates, “I wish I could be half the fisherman she is.”
As we spoke, Brady’s current work was on the tuna boat, Cape Clear. Compared to the other fisheries she had worked in, this gig feels “more like a vacation than anything.”
While she is back in the position of being the only woman aboard, she has a supportive crew and enjoys working so far offshore.
“I love being on the water, I love being outside, I love that I don’t have to deal with people,” she says, “I like that I get to see and do things that most of the population has no clue about, I feel very special that I get to have that.”
By Ari Blatt